Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium officials said Tuesday the facility dropped its membership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums willingly and won’t lose its famed sea turtle rehabilitation program.
The zoo has participated in the Sea Turtle Second Chance program since 2009, taking in several turtles a year and, ideally, releasing them all back into the wild again, according to Zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker. Of the 17 treated in 2015, 13 have been returned, including two newly slated for the North Carolina shore.
Baker said questions about the program rose after media reports suggested the reduction in turtles was related to the zoo’s lapsed membership. She called the split a “philosophical difference” of opinion between accepted local practice and mandatory AZA requirements for elephant care.
AZA policy requires “protected contact,” which minimizes physical contact between animals and trainers. Baker said the zoo disagrees the blanket policy.
Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the U.S., told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday that the zoo is “doing some serious damage to its reputation with its decision not to comply.”
“Pittsburgh is continuing to use an outdated, circus-style form of training and management that relies on keeper dominance and elephant fear of punishment,” she said. “There’s a much more humane way to go.”
Baker said that is not the case.
“We work with our animals through love, language and leadership,” she said. “We believe very strongly that we develop a positive working relationship. Our animals trust and respect our staff here at our zoo, and we have never used dominance or intimidation or fear in our programs.”
Elephant manager Willie Theison employs a “free contact” technique that puts keepers side-by-side with the multi-ton animals. Social dominance, physical punishment and cattle dogs have all been associated with the practice.
Baker said trainers need to be able to use every tool at their disposal.
“What we feel is important is that each zoo gets a chance to decide on their own what’s going to happen at each one of their institutions, because they know their facilities, they know the animals in their care the best (and) they know their staff expertise, so they’re really the people who should be making the day-to-day decisions,” she said.
Free contact is unique to Pittsburgh Zoo elephants only. Its 724-acre International Conservation Center in Somerset County, which caters to African elephant care and breeding, exclusively practices protected contact. The preserve is not open to the public.
Dropping its AZA affiliation “doesn’t change anything,” Baker said.
“The Pittsburgh Zoo is a great zoo. It’s a fabulous facility. We have wonderful animals here. The zoo actually has 18,819 animals in our collection. Now I made them count all the fish; that includes all the fish in the aquarium, but they’re animals too – we take care of them and we care very deeply about our animals.”
The facility belongs to 31 membership organizations, including the International Elephant Foundation and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, and is also regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she said.